Say you’re living in the United States, and you’ve been tasked to adapt a company’s website for a country they do business with. Internationalization is a long word that simply describes the considerations for a product, technology, or web app to be adapted to an international market. A company will create a localized version of the main website for each country they do business in, each with its own SEO ranking, by following this internalization process.
After an internationalization strategy has been developed, localizing site content begins. Localization is the process of translating and adapting a website to the needs of a new culture or audience – with a predominant focus on culture. According to Robert Laing, a successfully localized website is one that appears to have been developed locally. This feeling of local development is crucial to customers. Have you ever read a product description that was poorly translated, that didn’t make sense, and was almost laughable? If so, you already understand the importance of localization. So, what moves should you make to ensure the new website is well suited for its audience?
Localization is the process of adapting a mobile application
to better fit the audience’s language and cultural norms.
What are the most important factors to keep in mind during localization?
Use imagery that your target audience will appreciate. While a photo of a crying baby invokes sympathy for a Western audience, Japanese culture has a particular distaste for crying babies. If an article has a crying baby photo for its main locale, this should be reconsidered when localizing the article for a Japanese audience. Research your imagery!
Write using plain language. While this is a good rule to follow in general, it is especially important for localized content. Plain language is the most accurately translated. Beyond that, figures of speech often only make sense in their native tongue. Using figures of speech, complex metaphors, and unnecessary adjectives can cause your content to be translated poorly; in turn, confusing and frustrating your target audience.
Pay attention to the small details. From using a period to a decimal point for the hundreds place of numbers, to the way time is told, small details make a big difference when it comes to localization. Here are a few to watch out for:
- Dates: Does your audience use [month / day / year], or [day / month / year] for dates?
- Time: Is your audience a 12-hour or 24-hour time culture? Is time linear or circular in this culture?
- Color: What do colors mean to your culture? For some, white represents purity; others, death.
- Currency: Are you using the right symbols for currency? Does your culture expect the price in multiple curriences?
- Phone Numbers: What format should phone numbers be in? This varies by country.
- National Holidays: Is today an important holiday for your target audience?
- Geographic Examples: Does your audience recognize that landmark you mentioned?
- Website Language Codes: ISO codes are important for webmasters to properly deliniate between locales.
Don’t just translate — Transcreate. Translating occurs after you have content that was written for the target audience in plain language. Therefore, most of the work goes into researching your target audience’s culture and understanding how those norms should influence your writing. Simply translating the existing content will not result in an effectively localized website. That’s why you have to work with native speakers of a country to transcreate the content.
Should I be asking more fundamental questions?
Generally speaking, localization entails considering the language and cultural norms of your target audience. But we know that simply including a Google Translate function on your website doesn’t do enough. As you may know, most ideas don’t translate directly. That’s why it is important to ask some more fundamental questions when localizing:
- How Does Your Target Audience Understand Concepts?
Some cultures understand concepts through written text, while some understand better through narratives and descriptive imagery. For a culture that commonly understands information through picture and narrative, videos in the native language could be utilized. For a text-based culture, maintaining large amounts of text and lengthy translation will be required. In addition, some languages read LTR (left-to-right), others read RTL (right-to-left), and others read top-to-bottom. These reading mechanisms will be hugely influential to wireframing and UX Design.
- What is the Target Audience?
- Cultural Variants?
If you are writing for a Chinese company, do they operate in an area where it is common to speak simplified Chinese, traditional mandarin, or a local dialect? How will that change the interpretations of your written content? Assuming the country implies the locale is an unfortunate mistake to make because everything will need to be translated again. Culture systems, belief systems, and worldviews shape the way we think about the words we use. That’s why it’s so important to fully research cultural variants within your target audience.
How culture impacts content, hierarchy, and wireframing
How does your target audience navigate information? English reads from left to right and from top to bottom. However, this is not always the case. For example, Arabic reads from right to left, and then top to bottom. So, where English websites are organized with text left-aligned and images on the right, an Arabic site would need to have right-aligned text and images on the left. Chinese and Japanese read from top to bottom and then left to right, so a Japanese site would have a more linear construction. To see how these locales are targeted, I’ve referenced BBC News:
For the English locale of BBC News, we see how the logo, headings, title text, and paragraph text are all left-aligned.
It is important to note the top article is about polish immigrants. The linked photo is of a crying baby, which is an emotionally loaded image. In fact, each of the headings and images for the default locale is emotionally volatile. While this may be well accepted by an English locale, it should only be positioned as a main article for the English locale.
For the Indian locale of BBC News, we see how to logo, headings, title text, and paragraph text are all right-aligned.
The top article on this locale described how the Prime Minister of Iraq pledges to pursue the perpetrators who attempted his assassination. This content is far more relevant to the Indian locale than a conflict between Belarus and Poland, which is why the assassination piece takes the main article on the site, and the Belarus article moves down.
For the Japanese locale of BBC’s site, the content is linear. Still, the logo, headings, and text are left-aligned.
BBC News Japan is completely different from both the English and Indian locales. First, the content is linear – which is in line with the way the language is interpreted – but there is another important distinction. Live coverage of the Sao Paul Grand Prix is at the top of the site, which differed from both the English and Indian locale. As we learned earlier, crying babies are unpopular in Japan. As it turns out, Formula 1 racing has growing popularity in Japan. This is just one example of how engaging with your target audience’s culture can influence the content on the site – and why you should thoroughly research the culture before you write content.
Beyond content, there are clear organizational differences between these localized sites. Each of them has a unique wireframe that is built from an understanding of that culture’s navigational tendencies. This shows how much can be learned from researching a culture. From this, it is clear that UX Design and informational hierarchy are heavily determined by the culture of an audience. So learning the ways a language work, even if you don’t know the language, can be very helpful in localizing a website.
How to implement a localized website
Now that you’ve successfully transcreated your content, translated the navigational information, rebuilt your wireframe, updated the site’s imagery, and paid attention to every last detail, you can finally implement the actual work at hand – publishing your localized website. This may seem easy; just publish the site and everything is fine, right? Not so fast. A few other considerations must be given if your localized site is to be accessible to its new audience:
Support switching between locales. While the content has been localized, the localized site still needs to be made accessible to the new target audience. This entails adding functionality for users to change between site domains. A dropdown menu, including all the locales of a site, should be added to make the various domains accessible.
Use hreflang to properly denote a site’s language. A successful local website is well-recognized by Google by including ‘hreflang’. ‘Hreflang’ is used to tell Google the most relevant language for a site. There are a few major issues that come about when using ‘hreflang’ tags, which can hugely impact the ability of Google to index your localized site. Webmasters should use Google’s hreflang guidance: https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/189077?hl=en
Focus on future content creation. Working with researchers and writers in the locale helps to keep the site updated with relatable content. One common pitfall of localization is the tendency for businesses to continually focus their content-creation efforts on the main site. To maintain a localized site, you need to engage with local writers – not just translate article after article from your main site. Give particular focus to each locale!
By paying attention to these implementation details, you ensure that the site is not only accessible for the target audience but that the site can climb local rankings with Google. Localization is not an afterthought, but an integral part of many businesses. Above all, it is important to learn and embrace the locale by working with natives of your target audience. This helps ensure that your content is relatable and feels local. From there, it is crucial to treat the localized site with the same respect as the home site.
The goal of localization is to make products speak the same language as and build trust with users of a site. Localization is a heavily involved process of cultural research. If it is done well, nobody can tell that it was done at all. This is no easy task – but by paying particular focus to transcreation, a successful localized site can be created. Once the content is updated, some technical moves must be made for Google to properly reference the site, and special attention must be given to the localized site’s content. But if you keep it updated, keep it relevant, and make sure to keep it local, your new site should be well suited for its target audience.
Divecha, Farhad. “5 Common International SEO Mistakes Websites Should Leave behind in 2019.” Ryte.com, 23 Jan. 2019, en.ryte.com/magazine/5-common-international-seo-mistakes-websites-leave-behind-2019.
“Home.” BBC News, BBC, www.bbc.com/news.
“India.” BBC News, BBC, www.bbc.com/news/world/asia/india.
“Japan.” BBC News, BBC, www.bbc.com/news/topics/cjnwl8q4g7nt/japan.
Laing, Robert. “5 Ways to Win at Website Localization.” Mashable, 27 Dec. 2011, mashable.com/archive/website-localization.